by Chris Green
We’ll be there at three,” Natalie had said. Kevin pulled up his sleeve and revealed his watch. Two fifty-five.
Five more minutes.
In the hallway, he stood in front of the front door and imagined opening it. His brother Keith, Keith’s wife Natalie and their children Jonathan and Steven would be standing there on the doorstep. He would ask them to come inside, point at the line of slippers that he had made, the larger ones for the adults, the smaller ones for the children. After they had shuffled into the slippers, he would walk them along the hallway to the living-room door, giving them time to absorb the framed certificates on the hallway’s walls.
“This is the living room,” he would say, and show them inside. “Take a seat, any one you like.”
Their choice would be the tan leather sofa, wide enough for three, and its matching armchair. He would sit in the rocking chair, which had been his father’s, and he’d marked it off limits by placing his book Linguistic Diversity on its seat.
He would ask them if they’d like something to drink; tea or coffee for the adults, juice or lemonade for the children, then head off into the kitchen to prepare the drinks.
In the kitchen he opened the kettle lid, as he had done only a minute earlier, confirming the kettle was full. He reached into the pantry and pulled the biscuit tin from the shelf, opened it, counted the number of biscuits, divided by five and satisfied, replaced the lid. He eased open the fridge door. A fragile pile of stacked salmon sandwiches, crustless, swayed on a large, white cellophane-wrapped plate. On the shelf below lay a bottle of lemonade and a carton of orange juice.
Into the living room he strode, pretending to carry a tray laden with the drinks they had asked for. He imagined setting the tray on the table, then handing cups to Keith, Natalie and the children.
Now, what can we talk about? Ah, the children, of course.
He’d heard it was always good to talk about other people’s children, even when you didn’t have children of your own. Even when you would rather walk home than share a bus with a bunch of rowdy schoolchildren. Today he would make an effort and ask them what they enjoyed studying at school, ask them what—
The front door bell.
Kevin glanced around the living room. Satisfied with his preparation he set off for the front door. As he approached the door he saw a movement of bodies behind its stained-glass panels. He steadied himself, remembered to smile, unbolted the door and pulled it open.
On the steps stood four people. Four people he would have walked by in the high street without a flicker of recognition. The older male was surely his older brother, Keith, although he had lost almost all his hair and had lines flowing from the corners of each eye. Next to him was a woman Kevin had to assume was Keith’s wife, Natalie, but having only met her once, he couldn’t remember her face and it, like the rest of her, had widened. And yet the biggest shock were the two young men standing behind Keith and Natalie, a good head and shoulders taller than both.
Steven and Jonathan?
That was their names. He was sure of it. They were no longer the whiny children arguing over who would play with his Hornby train set. In the ten years since he had last set eyes on them, they had become terrifyingly tall, confident and were trying to suppress their boredom.
“Hello,” Kevin said. Thinking he had uttered the word too quietly and without sufficient enthusiasm, he repeated it. “Hello, do come in, do come in. It’s so good of you to come.”
They entered en masse, the boys breaking off at the front and running down the hallway to the living room before Kevin could utter the word “slippers”. He debated asking his brother and Natalie to change into slippers, then thought of the possible discord should the boys, as a result, have to be brought back and coerced into wearing them. He kept quiet.
“Nice place you have here,” Natalie said, smiling.
“Thank you,” Kevin said. “Please, go straight ahead – that’s where the living room is.”
He followed his brother and Natalie into the living room, noting with dismay that they gave not so much as a glance at his certificates.
“Take a seat, any one you like,” Kevin said, before seeing the boys had already done so, and one of them had claimed the rocking chair, with Linguistic Diversity now splayed open, on the floor.
The boy who was sat there must have noticed the look of alarm on Kevin’s face. “Is it okay to sit here, Uncle Kevin,” he asked, concern in his eyes.
No, is what Kevin wanted to say. For if he let the boy sit there, where would he himself sit? Surely not on the sofa between Keith and Natalie, that would be too close, too soon.
“Of course,” Kevin said.
“Thanks, Uncle Kevin.”
The boy leaned back into the rocking chair and set it in motion. “I love rocking chairs,” he proclaimed.
“Our Jonathan was talking about your rocking chair all the way here, he was,” Natalie proffered.
“You remember playing on it the last time you were here, don’t you, Jonathan?”
“Of course I do,” the boy said.
Kevin smiled. He couldn’t remember the boy playing on the rocking chair at all, but was relieved at having the boy identified as Jonathan.
“And what about you, Steven,” he said to the other boy, who was sat grandly in the armchair. “Do you like rocking chairs?”
The boy didn’t seem to hear as he made no movement.
It was Natalie who spoke for him. “Oh, I’m ever so sorry, Kevin, this isn’t Steven, this is our youngest, Philip. Steven had a soccer game today and couldn’t make it.”
Kevin was stunned. He hadn’t known Keith and Natalie had another son.
“Soccer? Oh, I see. He, err Steven, must be good at it then?”
“Very.” Keith spoke for the first time, as if he had been stirred from sleep. “He’s playing for the town’s under-16 team and is their best player. His coach says Steve has precocious talent and could play for England one day, if he applies himself.”
“He’ll need to grow, though,” Jonathan added. “Even Phil is taller than Steve, despite being three years younger.”
“There’s plenty of time for that,” Keith interjected, a hint of irritation in his voice. “Steve’s only fifteen. It’s not unusual for boys to have a growth spurt in their late teens.”
Jonathan kept rocking back and forth in the chair, head crooked backwards over the top of the chair’s back, gazing at the ceiling. Philip, now perched on the edge of the armchair, was staring at his shoes.
“Is that so?” Kevin said, wanting to keep the conversation alive rather than have to think of a new subject to talk about.
“Yes,” Keith continued, “it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Steve ends up being the tallest of the three. He badly wants to be a soccer player. He’s so strong-minded I can see him demanding his body grow taller. He can be quite a handful, even now.”
“It’s getting hard to tell him what to do,” Natalie confirmed.
Kevin watched as Keith gave Natalie a side glance and their eyes met in agreement.
Time for drinks.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” Kevin announced. “Would you like tea or coffee? I also have orange juice and lemonade for the boys.”
“Lemonade please,” Jonathan replied with a smile.
I’ll have orange juice,” Philip added. “Is it fresh?”
“Did you squeeze the oranges, or is it out of a bottle?”
“Oh, I see. Um, a bottle. Carton actually. The label says the oranges were freshly squeezed oranges.”
“In that case…” Philip said, his eyes studying the ceiling as if in deep thought, “I’ll have the lemonade.”
“Okay. And how about you, Keith, and you, Natalie?”
“We’ll both have teas, thank you, Kevin,” Keith said. “We’ve stopped drinking coffee. For our health.”
In the kitchen, Kevin switched the kettle on, then pressed his forehead against the coolness of the Formica kitchen top.
How am I going to get through this?
Footsteps approached, Keith’s he guessed.
Into the kitchen strolled Jonathan.
“Uncle Kevin, can I turn the TV on?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Where’s the remote control?”
“Remote control? Ah, there isn’t one. It broke a while ago.”
“So how do you turn the TV on then?”
“There’s a power button below the screen, to the right.”
“Button? Okay, I’ll look for it.”
Jonathan left. The kettle boiled. The TV’s speakers bleated. A horse racing programme. A cooking programme. Bach. A commercial for washing liquid. Football. In quick bursts every channel was tested for suitability.
Kevin made three teas and poured two glasses of lemonade. He placed them all on the largest tray he could find, together with the biscuit tin. Kevin carried the tray into the living room and slid it onto the dining-room table.
At least that went to plan.
On the television screen a pair of hairy hands were grating a carrot.
“Do you have any games, Uncle Kevin?” Philip had raised his chin and glared at Kevin expectantly.
“Games? Yes, I have Scrabble in the cupboard under the stairs. Wait a moment…”
“No, no, not that kind of game.”
“He means video games, don’t you, Philip,” Keith said.
Philip didn’t respond, preferring to gape at Kevin.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I have any video games.”
“Uncle Kevin is a scholar, boys,” Keith proclaimed. “He’s made studying his life’s work. He doesn’t have time for playing games, do you, Kevin?”
“I don’t. I do like to play games, it’s just…”
“You’ve never played a video game?” Philip said, his voice rising in incredulity as he spoke.
“But, you must have played Pokémon GO?” Philip persisted. “Everyone’s played Pokémon GO.”
“I’ve seen others playing it, but I haven’t tried it myself.”
“You really must, Uncle Kevin. It’s amazing. Even Dad’s played it.”
Kevin looked over at Keith.
“Well, I had to. Got to keep up with the times and all that. It was actually a lot of fun, and easier than it looks.”
“See,” Philip asserted. “You really should try it, Uncle Kevin.”
“Well, if your father’s played it, I will have to play it too.”
“Are these your certificates, Kevin?”
Natalie had drifted over to the upright piano. The wall against which it stood was a tapestry of framed certificates, each a brick in the house of Kevin’s education.
“Uh-huh,” Kevin responded as casually as he could.
“Boys, come here and look at these. Come on!” Natalie urged, waving them forward like a flight controller beckoning a plane to move closer to a terminal.
The boys looked at each other.
“Boys!” Natalie scowled and then stared at each in turn. The boys got to their feet and plodded over to the piano.
“Uncle Kevin,” Philip said, not bothering to turn and look at Kevin as he spoke, “what is the difference between an MA in Hebrew Studies and an MSt in Classical Hebrew Studies?”
“The MA specialized in the linguistics of Hebrew whereas the MSt focused on the basics and written Hebrew.”
“So, the MA is more advanced then.”
“That’s difficult to say, but one of the courses, I can’t remember which, was taught at Oxford.”
“Just how many languages do you know?” Keith interjected.
“Oh my,” Natalie shrieked. “Twenty-two! Did you hear that, boys? There are certificates here from universities where your uncle has studied twenty-two languages. Isn’t that amazing!”
“Very impressive, Uncle Kevin,” Philip said, doing his best to sound enthusiastic, but failing to match the wonder in Natalie’s voice.
“Learning languages must be one of the hardest things,” Natalie continued. “I only know English and a few words of French.”
“It’s not that difficult, Mum,” Jonathan piped up. “There are many apps that will get you speaking a foreign language like Spanish in two or three weeks.”
Keith belly laughed. “Jonathan,” he scolded, “your uncle isn’t learning languages for a short break in the Med so he can order fish and chips in Spanish. He’s learning languages so he can read the classics in their original language, like Don Quixote, and converse with Spanish scholars in native Spanish. And I’m sure he hasn’t only learned standard Spanish, he will have mastered other dialects like, oh, Catalan and Basque. Isn’t that right, Kevin?”
“Yes, it is. Galician too, which of course is similar to Portuguese—”
“But, Dad,” Jonathan interjected, avoiding eye contact with Kevin, “why don’t you tell Uncle Kevin about AI?”
“I’m sure your uncle already knows about AI, Jon.”
“But, Dad, if he did, he wouldn’t need to bother learning new languages, would he?”
“Now, now, Jon, you don’t really know what—”
“Yes I do! With AI, in the future, nobody will need to learn a new language because AI will automatically translate their spoken word into any other language and do it so quickly that it sounds like natural speech. No more boring French lessons…and no more boring French teachers either.”
“Now, Jonathan, that’s enough.”
“But, Dad, you know that’s true. Why don’t you tell Uncle Kevin about your new project.”
Kevin pulled a chair away from the dining table and sat down. He suddenly felt weary and sensed more disruption ahead.
“Well, I was going to bring it up later, Kevin, when the time was right, but my hand is being forced.”
“It’s quite ironic, really…”
“You remember how languages were never my thing so I graduated in computer science and you graduated a year later in languages.”
“East Asian Languages.”
“Yes, sorry, East Asian Languages. Well, you followed in father’s footsteps, and like him developed a passion for languages, whereas I chose computing, the hot subject at the time. Mother always said we follow a new path and leave a trail, so that’s what I was determined to do. I started at IBM, researching new technologies. I think I was working there the last time we met. To cut a long story short, I left IBM to start my own AI company, and we now make one of the leading AI language solutions on the market.”
“I see. Well, congratulations.”
“Thank you. It’s funny, well a coincidence, maybe even fate, that after all these years my career has veered towards languages despite having wanted to initially distance myself from them. I’m a late starter, but I’m finding it fascinating. I can see why you have devoted your life to learning them, Kevin.”
“And what language are you learning, Keith?” Kevin asked.
“All of them! We aim to have our solution capable of conversing in all languages. At the moment it has thirty under its belt, but in a few years’ time, we think it will be fluent in them all.”
“You mean, all seven thousand languages?”
“Yes! It sounds incredibly challenging but that’s the beauty of AI, the more languages it masters the easier the acquisition of new languages becomes.”
“How many languages of the twenty-two are you fluent in, Uncle Kevin?” Philip piped.
“That’s hard to say. Fluency is objective. I’d have to say ten fluently, with the other twelve of varying degrees of proficiency. I’m also just about to enrol in a Japanese Studies MA at SOAS.”
“You see, Dad’s AI already knows more languages than you do,” Philip countered.
“That’s enough, Phil,” Keith chided. “There’s one thing for AI to learn a language, it’s completely different for a human to do so. No comparison really. And as yet, humans’ ability to skillfully engage in communication is much more advanced than AI.”
“SOAS? Isn’t that where you will be teaching, Keith,” Natalie piped up.
“Not now, darling.”
But the words had already set Kevin’s heart thumping. “Teach? At SOAS?”
“It isn’t as grand as it sounds,” Keith said with a wave of a hand. “The Head of Languages is a friend of a friend. After reading my book she contacted me about being an adjunct lecturer for their AI and Language Learning course.”
“Yes. AI-Powered Language Acquisition it’s called. It hasn’t sold very well, but it’s opened some new doors, including the one at SOAS.”
“You’ll actually be teaching at SOAS?”
“From September. Only once a week, initially only for the autumn term. We’ll see how it goes.”
“That means Uncle Kevin will be your student, Dad,” Philip blurted.
“So it does!” Keith replied. “Fancy that!”
“It’s a small world, isn’t it?” Natalie giggled.
“Isn’t it just,” Kevin said, unsure if the smile he had attempted to form on his face had appeared or not.
Kevin looked at Keith, who was gazing intently at the cup of tea in his lap.
So this is why you had Natalie call me, after all these years, for a “family reunion”. You couldn’t resist getting one over on me again.
“More tea?” Kevin asked.
Keith turned his head in Natalie’s direction. Natalie gave her head a barely perceptible shake.
“Come to think of it, we’d best be getting back,” Keith said. “Thank you for the offer. The boys have school tomorrow. And it’s safer to drive home in the light, especially with the traffic and roadworks around the Metro Centre.”
“Of course. I understand. Your family’s safety comes first.”
“But this has been nice. We’d love to visit again, wouldn’t we, Natalie?”
“Yes, we would,” Natalie said, rising from the sofa and reaching for her handbag.
“Thank you for the drinks,” Keith uttered. “Thank Uncle Kevin, boys.”
“Thank you, Uncle Kevin,” the boys said, almost in unison.
The boys led the way to the front door with Keith prodding them playfully in their backs with a forefinger, with Natalie taking the rear.
From the door Kevin watched as they made their way down the steps to the pavement where the family’s car was parked.
“Come again,” he shouted in one final fling of pleasantness.
“We will,” Keith retorted, raising a hand in acknowledgement. “See you in September, at SOAS.”
Kevin clung to the front door and waited, waited until all four were back in the car and its doors had been pulled shut.
“By—,” he began to shout but failed to complete the word. His anguish swelled inside and he slammed the door shut.
Down the hallway he staggered, through the living room, and into the kitchen. He pulled the door shut and howled. Tears of sadness and rage leaped from his eyes and splattered on the kitchen floor.
“Aaaahhhh,” he roared, slamming both fists on the kitchen table, sending a cup rolling onto its side and over the table edge to its death, followed by its saucer.
Eventually the tears ceased. A cup of strong tea later, Kevin mustered the strength to return to the living room, with its scattered cushions, stained cups and glasses, and hollows in the sofa seats where Keith and Natalie had been sat.
See you in September, at SOAS.
Kevin dropped into the chair behind his desk. He jiggled open the tight-fitting right-hand drawer, pried out the envelope and jammed the drawer partly shut. From the envelope he pulled out all the sheets of paper. The bottom one, “Offer of admission: Japanese Studies MA”, was the sheet he needed. Grabbing a ballpoint pen from the pen stand, Kevin stubbed its point into the box for “Decline” and formed a thick, ugly mark in the shape of a tick, as jagged and as painful as if he’d ripped a sword through his own stomach.
Be your student? Not in my lifetime.